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Tiny Chipmaker Movidius Has a Tiny Chip That Looms Large

The startup's processors are giving vision to a range of tech gear, from drones to security cameras to virtual reality goggles.

Ina Fried for Re/code

Few people have heard of Movidius or its tiny Myriad 2 chip. But that’s about to change.

The company’s little processor provides an important capability for products ranging from security cameras to virtual reality headsets to drones. The chip allows a computer to quickly make sense of multiple video streams in real time, and it does so in just 35 square millimeters — smaller than an adult fingernail.

Market-leading drone company DJI is among the first to acknowledge its use of Movidius’ technology, confirming Tuesday that its new Phantom 4 uses the Myriad 2 chip to power features like object tracking and collision avoidance.

For Movidius, it’s a chance to finally be recognized for the eight years it took to develop its technology and for the market for such chips to emerge. Unlike the high-performance chips from Intel and Qualcomm, Movidius offers a more targeted chip focused on visual processing. That capability is going to be increasingly important as all manner of tiny objects seek to understand the world that surrounds them.

“I think it will be mind-boggling in the coming years,” CEO Remi El-Ouazzane said in an interview at the company’s decidedly low-key offices on the second floor of a Chase bank in San Mateo, Calif.

The company began life eight years ago with little more than a hunch that computer vision would eventually be important and that devices would need a super-low-power chip designed for just that task. The last four years, though, have been especially tough as the company worked to shrink its technology to a workable size and waited for the markets that needed such processors to emerge.

Despite Movidius’ humble beginnings and modest presence, El-Ouazzane is convinced the market for his computer vision chips is ready to take off. The company, whose staff has grown to 150 employees in the U.S., China and Ireland, said it expects its chips to show up in at least five to 10 products this year.

Its first break came in 2014, when the company’s technology was included as a part of Google’s Project Tango augmented reality concept. While that didn’t really translate into big bucks, it did help the company get noticed by Google. Earlier this year, Google confirmed it is working with Movidius on an unannounced project.

Now, of course, the company has to deal with all the competitors that want in on the market. Qualcomm, in particular, has set its sights on nabbing a share of the drone market, while the tiny flyers are also a staple in demos from Intel CEO Brian Krzanich. Intel also last year purchased a German drone maker to get a better understanding of the market.

Movidius, for its part, touts the small size of its chip as a key advantage over companies trying to repurpose larger processors built for smartphones.

To see the technology in action, here’s a video of a DJI Phantom 4 chasing me around a baseball field:

And here is the same drone using computer vision to avoid crashing into a scoreboard:

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